I am beginning to feel some strange inexplicable enthusiasm for the upcoming season. It is not the positive stories proclaiming the new Carmelo Anthony or how George Karl is thrilled with the way the team is working or how they can win 60 games. It has nothing to do with that prefabricated horse drivel. We hear the same talk every year.
The source of this cautious optimism has everything to do with how last season ended. Now how can it possibly be that I could find hope in the huge embarrassing failure that was the Nuggets 2008 playoff flameout? Well, for the first time in the last five seasons the Nuggets have been forced to acknowledge that they are flawed and must improve in order to truly compete with the best teams in the league.
Five seasons ago in the spring of 2004 the Nuggets faced the Minnesota Timberwolves in their first playoff appearance in eight years. They managed to win a game and were relatively competitive. There was hope for the future and the commonly held belief was that as Melo developed and the team grew they would be a contender. No one was upset with the outcome of that series.
The next season they won 49 games thanks to the second half surge behind new coach George Karl. They went on to face the mighty Spurs in the playoffs and played a highly competitive five game series. The belief was once they had a full season under Karl they would win a butt load of game, be a high seed and host a couple of playoff series.
Fast forward to the 2005-2006 season and things did not go so swimmingly. They dropped down to 44 wins, but managed to win their division, which they were able to convince each other that that was some kind of improvement over the previous season where they won 49 games, but did not win the division. They were the third seed due to the fact they won the division and received a seemingly favorable matchup with the traditionally inept Los Angeles Clippers. Well, even with the lower degree of difficulty the Nuggets could manage only one win, but the disharmony amongst the team and Karl (that was the series where Kenyon was benched) was an easy scapegoat to prevent them from realizing they just lost a playoff series to the Clippers and it really was not even a close matchup.
The following season the Nuggets had an eventful regular season, complete with a fracas with the Knicks, which saw them bring in Allen Iverson. Well, once again there were high hopes for the Nuggets playoff chances following a 10-1 finish to the regular season, but once again they faced the Spurs. After yet another five game banishment the excuse was they just needed a training camp with Iverson on board to iron things out.
That brings us to last season. They did post the first 50 win season in 20 years, but they were no better relative to the rest of the league than they had been in the previous four seasons. For the first time in their five year stretch of first round exits they were swept. They were not competitive and there were no excuses to be made. They were simply nowhere near as good as the Lakers.
The lack of an alibi for their performance has forced them to look into the mirror and realize that if they want to make a dent in the playoffs they must change the way they approach the game. They must look in the mirror and deal with the blemishes they have simply covered over in the past. The very blemishes that have been so apparent to anyone who has watched them on a somewhat regular basis during that five year stretch.
Aside from the collective impetus to improve, there are also individuals who are seeking some type of redemption. Nene has a chance to establish himself as the Nuggets starting center. He will be motivated to excel this season. J.R. Smith knows that he can be an all-star caliber player if he continues to work hard and the three year, $16 million contact he signed last month will look like a pittance compared to what his next deal will look like should he reach his potential. Melo spent a good deal of the summer playing with Kobe, LeBron and Wade. All of those guys have been to the finals in the last three seasons and Kobe and Wade have rings. If Melo does not reexamine how he has gone about playing basketball for the Nuggets after the events of the previous six months he probably never will.
It is not only the players, but Karl has a lot to prove this season. He knows how many fans want him out of the picture. If he does not step up to the plate for one last hurrah as an NBA coach this season he will have to live with that the remainder of his days.
I might be completely wrong, but if we are ever going to see the best of the Nuggets and the best of George Karl, it has to be this season. Of course, I am not going to truly believe that myself until I see a difference on the court.
Even so, I have a feeling I just cannot shake.